Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A take on today's announcements from Apple

Earlier today, Apple announced two new MacBook Air notebook computers (both available today) and a bunch of new Mac software and services:
I'll start (and finish) with iLife '11 quickly, only because it's primarily a refresh of iLife '09 with improvements to iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand. iLife '11 will be included with all new Macs and will cost $49 when purchased separately.

The new MacBook Air computers probably got the most press attention. They're thinner and lighter than the previous MacBook Air, and one model has turned into two: An 11-inch model with a 1.4 GHz Intel Core Duo processor and 64 or 128GB of flash memory, and a 13-inch model with a 1.88 GHz Core Duo processor and 128 or 256GB of flash. Prices range from $999 for the 11 inch 64GB model to $1599 for the 13 inch 256GB model.

At today's event, Steve Jobs said that the new MacBook Air represents the future of notebook computers. I'm not so sure, nor am I convinced of the value proposition. Consider that a 64GB WiFi iMac sells for $699, and you can add a Bluetooth wireless keyboard to it for $69. So, for about $770, you've got an iPad that's easier to use than a Mac, has less expensive software and weighs less. Apple says that the iPad is for content consumption and the MacBook Air is for content creation, but there are plenty of content creation apps for the iPad (including Apple's own iWork suite).

The MacBook Air is also somewhat crippled as a content creation platform. It's got two USB 2.0 connections and a DisplayPort for an external monitor, but that's it. 256GB of flash is plenty for text-based content, but it'll get used up very quickly if you try to do image or video production. You can carry around a portable hard drive, but there goes the size and weight advantage of the Air. Also, the Core Duo will soon be two generations old, since Intel plans to start shipping Sandy Bridge-based Core i3, i5 and i7 processors in January.

In short, the MacBook Air remains a niche product, albeit less expensive than the previous generation. At the low end, it will compete with an iPad configuration that costs $229 less, and at the high end, for $200 more you can get a 15 inch MacBook Pro with a much faster Core i5 processor, more storage space, more battery life, more I/O options and twice as much memory.

FaceTime will link Macs, iPhones and iPad touches for video calling. FaceTime has become one of the most popular applications for the iPhone 4, and Apple's announcement today enables video calling on all of its devices equipped with a front-facing camera.

OSX Lion will implement multitouch gestures, although it will use a touchpad or Magic Mouse to do so, not a touchscreen. It will bring many of the familiar user interface elements from iOS to OSX, but as demonstrated today, the user interface metaphors look a bit "glued together", not fully integrated. I suspect that a lot more work will be done to make OSX look more like iOS.

Perhaps the most interesting announcement was the new Mac App Store. Steve Jobs said that 7 billion apps have been downloaded from the iOS App Store so far, and while the company can't hope to replicate that number on the Mac, it's trying to replicate the experience. Mac users will be able browse and search for apps just like they do with iOS, and they can purchase, download and install apps with one click. Developers will get the same 70%/30% revenue split that they get from the iOS App Store.

The Mac has always taken a back seat to Windows in the number and variety of applications available. Where there might be dozens or even hundreds of applications available for Windows in a given category, there might only be a handful of Mac apps. (Note that I'm comparing quantity, not quality, but I'm not convinced that Mac applications, as a group, are "better" than Windows apps.) If Apple can make it easier to buy and sell Mac apps, and can get Mac owners to "impulse buy" Mac apps as iPhone and iPad owners buy iOS apps today, it could go a long way to equalizing the perception that Windows has a better selection of applications.

To make this work, however, Apple needs to get Mac application developers to price their apps closer to those for the iPad than to Windows. $0.99 to $4.99 is an impulse buy, and Apple will need a steady supply of low-priced apps to drive volume and get users coming back again and again.
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